Slap without tickle

by Ashok Malik in Cricinfo

Four months ago, he was the wronged Indian, the “Sikh warrior” who had been done in by malevolent Australians. Today, he’s the villain, the hot-head who’s gone too far, been banned for the rest of the Indian Premier League (IPL) 2008 edition – and who was probably guilty as charged by Andrew Symonds too.

The most ridiculous aspect of the Harbhajan Singh-Sreesanth controversy – which in any case is the most riveting episode the IPL has thrown up so far – is the fickleness of the cricket media and the regiments of newspaper commentators and sound-bite pundits. With specials programmes like Chhante ki Goonj (The Resounding Slap) and Tamache ka Takkar (The Clash of the Slap) – and I hope I have those names right – making a further mockery of news television, Harbhajan has gone from national hero to international anti-hero, from one ridiculous extreme to another.

There is no doubt the stand-in captain of the Mumbai Indians needed to be punished for hitting Sreesanth. Whatever the provocation, whatever the pressure, this was not on. It went too far.

Yet, four things need to be pointed out.

First, just because Harbhajan slapped Sreesanth doesn’t also mean that he called Andrew Symonds a monkey. It does not necessarily prove Sachin Tendulkar was lying when he gave evidence in Harbhajan’s favour in Australia. There is no correlation. Let us not get carried away.

Second, Sreesanth’s guilt may be less recognisable but he surely deserves a strong reprimand as well. He has been obnoxious throughout the IPL. He has sledged, abused and provoked rival players, even junior batsmen and plain tyros. It could be understood if he were resorting to verbal warfare when faced with a batsman who had reached 95 off 35 balls. Sreesanth, however, has more often than not begun the battle.

Third, even if one were to be extraordinarily charitable and exclude the recent tour of Australia and explain it as a case of a volatile cricketer being targeted by a clever opposition, the fact is Harbhajan is not the best behaved sportsman in the world. Sreesanth hasn’t slapped anyone yet but, overall, he’s even worse.

Nevertheless, each time this is brought up, it is explained away with some pop sociology or similar claptrap: “This is the new, aggressive India”; “For years, we have suffered, now we will give it back”; “These are boys from small towns, middle India – they don’t care for reputations, they are not deferential to the white man”.

I once brought up Sreesanth’s behaviour on a television programme and suggested somebody have a chat with him. It was instantly apparent that almost everyone in the studio disagreed with me. Ajay Jadeja, a fellow guest on the show, jumped to the fast bowler’s defence and said he was absolutely fine and it would be unfair to curb his natural instincts.

Agreed, bad behaviour is as old as cricket. Some of what the Australians did under Ian Chappell – and seem to be doing now under Ricky Ponting – cannot be condoned. There is a crucial difference between playing hard and playing dirty.

If Indian cricketers – “new”, “aggressive”, “super-confident”: choose your adjective – want to give it back when assailed or want to occasionally needle a batsman as he walks to the crease, I have no problem with that. There is an ocean that separates such acceptable gamesmanship from plain boorishness. Waving his bat, exercising his pelvic muscles mid-pitch, screaming and shouting, bearing his teeth, grimacing menacingly without reason, Sreesanth is the most visible face of this cricket boor; at least on television. The face, let us accept, is ugly.

Precedent can justify anything, and nothing. Kepler Wessels hit Kapil Dev in the shin in the early 1990s, John Snow knocked down Sunil Gavaskar in the early 1970s. Neither was right and both should still be embarrassed. Harbhajan and Sreesanth are no better, no worse. There are moral absolutes on the cricket field. The state of Indian society and its evolutionary juncture cannot change those absolutes.

Fourth, while Harbhajan is going to be sitting at home for the rest of the IPL and will forfeit his millions as well, it is my guess that Sreesanth has lost more in the long run. As Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s column in the Hindustan Times this [April 28] morning suggests, the Indian dressing room is less likely to take a clear-cut, good-bad binary position on the unseemly business. To the rest of the Indian squad, there need not be one obvious villain and one obvious victim.

My hunch is Sreesanth will face a few barbs for, to use a friend’s phrase, “ratting” on a colleague and breaking club rules. This is not a value judgment; it is a cold, cynical assessment. By making a public scene, playing the wronged guy, crying on camera, blaming it on his “fever in the morning”, Sreesanth has betrayed a streak for exhibitionism and a low emotional quotient.

On television, it works in his favour. In the Indian team bus, it could be his Achilles’ heel.

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